The Battle For The Suburbs
Ol Reliable GOP Suburbs Are Defecting
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 25, 1996
LOWER MERION, Pa. - For more than a century, the stately old stone mansions and storybook tudors of Phila-delphia's "Main Line" suburbs housed America's richest and most loyal Republicans. Come war or peace, come bull or bear, come baby boom or urban bust, the party could count on the old-guard gentry.
It appealed to families of lesser means but big dreams, who followed their jobs and fled even farther from the city in the '60s and '70s. They, too, embraced the GOP. In 1988, George Bush drew 60 percent in Montgomery County; in fact, no Democratic candidate for president or even Congress had ever outpolled a Republican there. "You could have put an ax-murderer on our line and still won," said one GOP operative.
Until four years ago. That's when this heavily white county with the state's highest education levels finally de-spaired of the Ronald Reagan-George Bush economy. (Even the Main Line felt the recession of the late '80s, the first that truly devastated suburbia.) In 1992, voters here voiced concerns about the erosion of abortion rights. They cringed at the Houston Republican convention's air of intolerance. And they punished its candidate. Bush, whose patrician bear-ing should have made him a true son of the Main Line, tallied 39 percent.
If the GOP is to be America's majority party, much less hold onto Congress, places like Montgomery can't be elec-toral question marks. They should be a natural, as well as essential, constituency for moderate Republicans. "They're blowing it," said David Lipson, a Republican who publishes Philadelphia Magazine, which counts 70 percent of its readers in the suburbs. "They're giving it away."
He's right. Dole has made three visits to suburban Philadelphia since the primaries, including one last week to de-liver a major speech on crime and drugs. But he's way behind in the polls here. His Chicken Little message on crime and the economy doesn't jibe with the increasing sense of economic and personal security that folks here feel. Business is booming in suburbia; bad guys are not.
People are even returning after dark to the city they used to run from. And, despite efforts at the San Diego conven-tion to soften the party's face, the strident platform and the power of the extremists still leaves many wary. Neither vit-riol nor voodoo economics is selling in suburbia these days.
"I've always liked Bob Dole and I have no problem voting for Republicans," said Denise Jones, a 42-year-old ad-vertising manager and political independent, as she waited for a train at the Ardmore station. "But he's made me nervous the way he's swinging toward supply-side economics and the Christian Coalition. Roe-Wade is important to me. And I don't like where he is on that."
"I've been a life-long Republican," Leonard Caplan, a retired engineer, said almost apologetically after a meet-the-congressional-candidates tea in an upscale apartment complex in Cheltenham. But his party had lost him and other sen-iors with votes to cut the growth of Medicare by $270 million. He also believes his party is sending out the wrong mes-sage on education and children. "I'm worried about my grandchildren," he said. "Are we going to have a next generation of hamburger flippers?"
In one of the nation's most closely watched House races, incumbent Jon Fox holds a slim lead in polls over Democ-rat Joe Hoeffel, an energetic and experienced local official who achieved a certain measure of recognition in once cap-turing a heavily Republican state legislative seat.
Fox won his House seat two years ago by defeating the incumbent, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former TV reporter and wife of the state Democratic leader. Margolies-Mezvinsky had established a striking precedent in 1992 - the so-called Year of the Woman - by becoming the first woman in Pennsylvania to win a congressional seat in her own right. Fox, however, did not find his later victory over her comforting: In the "Year of the GOP," he won by only four percentage points.
Today, Fox has an edge largely on the strength of being what The Philadelphia Inquirer called the "zen master of constituent services," but he has been targeted by congressional Democrats, big labor, abortion-rights activists and eld-erly groups for special torment. Fox is running scared - and away from his party's record.
"What you need to know about me is, yes, I am a Republican," Fox said during a debate at the McKinley Fire Co. "But I stand up to Newt Gingrich when I need to."
More than once he said, "I'm an independent Republican." At least that night Fox still said he was a Republican. Running from Gingrich, whose grand design of destroying incumbent Democrats helped elect Fox and other Republi-cans, is a common tactic for GOP freshman. But Fox has taken the distancing game a stunning step forward: Showing me a campaign brochure he and his supporters have distributed by the thousands, Fox smiled mischievously and said: "You notice you don't even see Republican' on it."
You don't. To some extent, that's a recognition of the increasingly sour taste that both parties leave in voters' mouths these days. Republicans and Democrats alike are reluctant to emphasize party affiliation, especially in the sub-urbs - where, more than in cities and rural communities, people are registering as so-called "blanks." But the fact that Fox and other GOP wanna-continue-to-bes are denying their political pedigrees in suburban districts designed to be safe for Republicans is a measure of the mess created by the national party.
"This is not the party it once was," said State Rep. Lita Cohen, a Republican whose progressive politics helped her win nearly 70 percent of the vote in 1994 in one of the few suburban Philadelphia districts where Democratic and Re-publican enrollment is about equal. "Bob Dole felt he had no choice but to take a huge leap to the right and is losing," she says. "And Bill Clinton becomes a Rockefeller Republican and is winning."
Folks in these parts would call that a Main Line Republicanism. She describes it as a philosophy that wants to keep politicians "out of your pocket but also out of your bedroom," that considers poverty - but not poor people - evil, that prefers private solutions to public problems but doesn't pretend there isn't an important role for government. "We have to get back to that as a party," she said.
As for Fox, he is about as independent of Gingrich as any Republican in the virtual reality of Washington. Al-though Democrat Hoeffel likes to say that Fox voted with the speaker 91 percent of the time, that was the lowest per-centage of any Republican freshman. Fox is a member of the Tuesday Group, formed by Long Island's Rep. Rick Lazio, that came together when moderate Republicans began growing increasingly concerned about the party's conservative agenda. The group was responsible for softening legislation its members felt would damage the environment, schools, women and children.
Most of the Tuesday Group members would describe themselves as pro-choice - although, in common with Fox, they often voted against federal funding for abortion-related services. And almost to a man they regret their vote to cut $270 million from Medicare, eventually playing an important role in persuading Gingrich to stop his close-down-the-Washington-Monument game of chicken with Clinton.
These two issues, abortion and Medicare, are hurting Fox. And their prime constituencies, women and seniors, are concerned about what the Republican Party would do if it completely controlled Washington.
After voting against the so-called partial-birth abortions, but still claiming to be for abortion rights, Fox received the "Great Pretender" award from the National Abortion Rights Action League, the only congressman in the country to be singled out this year for the dubious distinction.
Fox is also paying a price for approving $270 million in cuts to the growth rate of Medicare. The AFL-CIO satu-rated his district with ads attacking him by name for this vote. And a group of retirees had a steamroller driven up to his home, a stunt designed to show how he, yes, "steam-rolled seniors."
The irony is that, like the many moderate Democrats who lost in 1994 and left the party's congressonal delegation more heavily liberal, many of the Republicans most in jeopardy this fall are middle-of-the-roaders such as Fox. (Their moderate politics helped make them palatable in many swing districts.) Losing these guys would leave behind a GOP caucus leaning even more lopsidedly to the right. That would be as unhealthy for the Republicans as it was for the De-mocrats. That's something Clinton, the centrist campaigner, understands. And it's what the parties must accept, at least if they want to win in America's swinging suburbs.